Late in Brightfellow, Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, the protagonist and titular “fellow” takes two eight-year-old girls to see Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, for those readers familiar with Ducornet, the impropriety of this outing is never discussed. Rather, the children are more upset by Jimmy Stewart’s nipples than Raymond Burr’s murder and dismemberment of his wife, “Men should not have nipples!” they insist, “no one should have nipples!.” This absurd and illogical world, here as in all of Ducornet’s novels, is not exactly magical realist -- there is no intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise normal here. It is also not a postmodernist world of artifice and simulacrum. Rather, her worlds are all surface and texture. Brightfellow refuses to conform to a narrative logic in which events have meaning. While Ducornet is, here and everywhere in her work, expansively erudite, her use of citation and reference does not take the form of clues, or gestures toward meaning. Her Borgesian meta- and intertexts aren’t to be interpreted; they are to be experienced. Ducornet even makes a joke of the kind of embodiment her prose evokes, when the eight-year-olds debate the logistics of body dismemberment, “They suppose the thighs look like hams and that there would have only been room for two in the suitcase. They wonder if the knees would have been attached to the thighs.” This image: grotesque and gustatory, also silly and beautiful, distills all of Brightfellow. It also evokes Ducornet’s earlier novels Phosphor in Dreamland and The Fountains of Neptune more than her last, Netsuke, which Michael Cunningham described in The New York Times as a malignant and malicious story of “soul-murder.” Brightfellow flirts with childish eroticism and terrible violence, yet, despite the Alfred Hitchcock, in it Ducornet follows Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, more than her sometime-precursors Vladimir Nabokov or the Marquis de Sade. This novel, Ducornet’s ninth, follows its bright fellow, who we meet as a boy called “Stub,” and rejoin later as a young man calling himself Charter Chase. Stub/Charter, abandoned by his mother and then abandoning his father, winds up a feral young man on the campus of an unnamed university. His first entry into the world of the college is through the library, where he obsessively reads the works of the reclusive anthropologist Werner Vanderloon. Eventually, Stub becomes a secret resident, sleeping in a specimen cabinet in the biology lab and pilfering the left-behind contents of gym lockers and dorm rooms for an appropriately preppy wardrobe that enables him to pass as a student. The inevitable Giles Goat-Boy comparisons are already made by Ducornet’s blurbers, and while, in some sense, this book may resemble John Barth’s feral-boy-on-campus novel, Stub/Charter’s self-invention is a red herring. This is a coming-of-age story in a looking-glass universe, in which familiar categories are meaningless. Charter presents himself as a scholar studying Vanderloon’s papers, and so gains entry into Faculty Circle, where he eventually takes a room in the home of a lonely emeritus professor. While there, Charter conceives an obsession with a child, Asthma, who lives next door (and who, in a bit of heady referentiality, he observed through the window, and who he will take to see Rear Window). Observing Asthma, Charter muses on Vanderloon’s anthropological system: Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic -- sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming a human, just as it is about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away from the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon. This anthropological treatise recapitulates Charter’s own experience, when, as Stub, he imagined a linoleum floor as" an archipelago that begins under his bed and goes all the way to his door. It shines with beauty and danger. There are flowers that have voices and sing to children. There is a poisonous toad that speaks in riddles, and the wrong sort of snake, thick as a chimney, concealed in the dappled light. For Ducornet, the point of this description is its sensation. She wants you to feel “tugboat” and “galloping stallion” in your mouth when you read. Rear Window makes the act of viewing a film dangerously close to voyeurism. Brightfellow suggests that the artifice of the words on the page and the voyeurism of a girl playing in a window, or an anthropologist observing some hitherto unknown society, are all there is. Ducornet’s is a world of surfaces so rich and textured that notions of meaning and interpretation are subsumed under a lush and seductive prose that eventually inhabits readers minds. Her writing inevitably gets described in a vocabulary of her creation: “decadent,” “anarchic,” and “fragrant.” In Brightfellow, Ducornet forces readers to experience the physicality of reading, to feel and taste the act of storytelling. Every character perpetually self-invents. When Charter creates a fictive Vanderloon book about an obscure and isolated island culture, it is indistinguishable from the “real” Vanderloon texts. Vanderloon’s account of play both is and is not apt in the novel’s reading of Rear Window, which forces the viewer to share Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism. As the film’s audience sees the film through the eyes -- and the lens -- of its protagonists, readers of Brightfellow feel Ducornet’s prose as Charter invents the cultures of Vanderloonian anthropology. Ducornet has said that everything she writes is “informed by experience, experience not limited to the street, bathroom, kitchen.” This is a novel to be experienced, not simply read. Yet to say this novel refuses meaning is not to say that it lacks event. Its celebration of the texture and contours of storytelling, of the unruly expansiveness of language, and of the relative ease with which the borders of the world are permeated by fabulation offers a rebuke to a kind of fiction in which the imagination is increasingly constricted. As ever, Ducornet wants you to feel and taste her story more than to say what it is about. Like Vanderloon’s notion of play, it is about becoming human, or a tugboat.
I am surprised to find myself rooting for -- eagerly awaiting -- something that many would consider highly improbable: a retraction and an apology by 'New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks for his July 17 opinion piece, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.”
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I admire people who reread books over and over again. Some writers I know reread certain books annually; it works something like a “checkup,” a scheduled nourishing of that ineffable, particularized magic that is creative inspiration. In his “Year in Reading” post, David Shields wrote that he rereads certain books “seemingly monthly.” I recall from somewhere that Mary Gordon reads/rereads Proust every morning, like a devotional. For me, the habit of rereading has been mostly elusive (so-many-books-so-little-time, blah blah blah); with the exception of books and stories that I use for teaching. The necessity of rereading is in fact one of my personal favorite things about teaching. This summer I’ve reread a number of books that will be appearing on my fall syllabus; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of them. (A confession: there is a little bit of “acting as if” in teaching. For some time I’ve been preaching “close reading” and “reading with a pencil” and “read at least twice” to students. I’ve started off semesters with Francine Prose’s “Close Reading” chapter from Reading Like a Writer. And it’s not that I haven’t truly ascribed to these mantras or practiced them, but with Gatsby I’ve turned a corner; there’s knowing something, and then there’s knowing something. It's like I'm a born-again rereader, experiencing anew how a first read can be as different from a second read or a third read as reading two completely different works. And yes: with great literature, the experience is deeper and richer with each successive reading. Of course, the works stays the same; it’s we who change.) What could I possibly say about The Great Gatsby that has not already been said by Fitzgerald acolytes and Gatsby-ologists through the ages? I read it once in high school, and then again in college. This third read marks the first time I've read it since I've been writing my own fiction in earnest. I suppose what struck me most is how The Great Gatsby as a “literary treasure,” as something we refer to as a classic, is so much less than what the novel actually is – which is something both gorgeously and impeccably wrought. A Shortlist of What Surprised Me Upon My Third Reading of The Great Gatsby 1. The Great Gatsby is not a story about the elite Northeast. Well, it is to some degree. But really, it’s a story about everything and everyone else. “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all,” muses the narrator Nick Carraway at the end. Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, we were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life. Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old – even then it had always for me a quality of distortion… I see it as a night scene by El Greco. In other words, The Great Gatsby might indeed be peopled by the outlandishly wealthy, by mansion-dwelling, tennis-playing, alcoholic yacht-owners; and yet it’s not ultimately a story about them, it is in fact a story about us. (And it’s sobering to recognize how in the past I have sometimes read as if half-asleep: my first Gatsby read was two years into high school, an elite New England prep school where I’d landed as a semi-conscious 13 year-old, an “unadaptable” outsider in every way, from suburban Maryland. Not “the West,” but bored and sprawling indeed. None of this resonated at the time.) 2. Sentences, sentences, sentences. We hear much about Fitzgerald ushering in “The Jazz Age,” and about the misfortunes of his personal life. But what about his luminous sentences? Writers know that an admirable career goal is to write a handful of truly beautiful sentences in one's lifetime. Hunter S. Thompson was dead-on in making a writing exercise of retyping the entirety of Gatsby. My pencil moved almost as furiously as my eyes while I read: Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires. He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village – appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. Describing why a sentence is beautiful is a little like trying to describe what chocolate tastes like. For me, Fitzgerald’s sentences are somehow both profoundly weighted and soaring, confident in their matter-of-factness and indulgent in their romanticism. How? How? 3. Daisy’s voice and "the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg." Do you remember these descriptions? (Perhaps your stellar high school English teacher made a point of highlighting these image-motifs for your consideration.) Daisy’s voice is her most distinguishing feature in every scene in which she appears, and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg is the faded image on the billboard that looms over George Wilson’s garage. Both haunt me, they vibrate in my mind and ear well after reading; I hear Daisy and see those gigantic eyes much more vividly than I recall Gatsby himself. With these iterative descriptions, Fitzgerald impresses upon us the complex quality of Gatsby’s allure/repulsion to Daisy… It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again […] there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour […] “She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of –“ I hesitated. “Her voice is full of money,” he [Gatsby] said suddenly. …and disturbs the reader with a sense of formless moral scrutiny, particularly as the story builds toward crisis: The eyes of Doctor T.H Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away […] Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg kept their vigil, but I perceived, after a moment, that the other eyes [Myrtle Wilson’s] were regarding us with peculiar intensity from less than twenty feet away. 4. The novel is recognizable in form and craft, and yet still singularly affecting. Gatsby is both skillfully, and conventionally, plotted. The yellow car/mistaken identify device, upon which the story’s climax and resolution hinge, feels almost Hitchcockian in its nod to the murder-mystery mixup. Who’s driving which car and why convincingly fuels (literally) Gatsby’s inevitable demise, Tom and Daisy’s flight, and Nick’s final revulsion towards the excesses of Eastern privilege. Fitzgerald also makes deft use of setting descriptions to evoke complex emotions, imminent conflict, and juxtapositions throughout; and his physical descriptions of characters are concrete and evocative, frequently making excellent use of similes and metaphors. In other words, it’s no wonder the book is on class reading lists; it conforms to/exemplifies so many of our writing-craft tricks of the trade. At the same time, Fitzgerald’s social intelligence, flawlessly on display in Gatsby, is unmatched. Maybe because social class is both much more fluid today, and more effaced, Fitzgerald's needle-threading of the superfine points of class difference, always with the exact right detail, struck me this time around: I couldn't have talked to [Jordan] across a tea-table that day if I never talked to her again in this world. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald also gets the essential doubleness of human nature so terribly, perfectly right. Every character is pulled in (at least) two directions; love and hate, admiration and disdain, are of a piece in almost every relationship. And the reader ultimately feels an unresolved, and yet somehow perfectly coherent dividedness about each character. 5. Redford was a terrible casting choice for Gatsby in the 1974 film version. Redford is good at iron-clad, outwardly confident sons-of-bitches whose insecurities manifest in nastiness. David Chappellet in Downhill Racer, Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were, Denys in Out of Africa, John Gage in Indecent Proposal. But Gatsby is an uncertain shell of a character, as porous as he is determined: …he stretched out his arm toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling [...] An hour later the front door opened nervously, and Gatsby, in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-colored tie, hurried in. He was pale, and there were dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes. In a current-day production, I’d think more along the lines of the nervous energy of, say, Matt Damon; or perhaps this was the role that, tragically, we never got to see Heath Ledger play. *** Books we deem “classics” can get crusty in our collective minds. We box them in, we confuse our direct experience of the book with someone else’s (a reviewer’s, a casting director’s, a teacher’s), we remember them as “this” or “that,” when in fact they are all of it and more. Pull one off your shelf if you can spare the reading time; you’ll be amazed.